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How Businesses Can Step Up To Tackle Racial Inequality In The Workplace

In the business world, racial diversity is being heavily discussed. While these conversations are in no way new, they have finally captured the attention of the majority. Here are some ways businesses can turn their words into action right now to enact real change...

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, which has triggered Black Lives Matter protests across the globe, racial inequality has come to the forefront of public discourse.

Social media is dominated by discussions of racial injustice, systemic racism, police brutality, white privilege, allyship and anti-racism. These conversations are obviously not new, but they have finally captured the attention of white people who had perhaps not engaged with them before. They are forcing society as a whole to re-examine the way systems and individuals treat black people, and people of colour.

As a result, racial diversity in the workplace is being widely addressed. In the business world, many companies have responded by releasing public statements of solidarity (some more impactful than others) and taking action to make their workplace more diverse and inclusive.

[Ben & Jerry’s powerful statement addressing Black Lives Matter released June 2nd]

‘How to support Black colleagues’ has been trending on LinkedIn News since the protests began. Organisations are hiring and/or growing Diversity & Inclusion teams. CEOs are admitting their faults and vowing to do better. We’re beginning to see more and more people actively engaging with this topic, which has for years remained unaddressed by the majority.

But this is only the first step. In order to ‘close the gap between rhetoric and reality‘ as the FT eloquently put it, businesses must turn their words into actions to ensure they make long-lasting positive change for racial diversity in their workforce.


Racial Diversity in the Workplace: The Stats

Let’s start with the reality of BAME representation across business. While in 2020 we are making progress, the numbers are still dismally unequal. Particularly when you factor in the millions that organisations have spent on ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ initiatives in recent years.

  • There are currently zero black women leading Fortune 500 companies (Source).
  • Only 4 Fortune 500 companies are run by black chief executives (Source).
  • As of Feb 2020, 37% of UK-listed businesses in the FTSE 100 had zero non-white board members (Source).
  • Black professionalsin 2018 held just 3.3% of all executive or senior leadership roles in the United States (Source).
  • Job applicants with ‘black sounding names’ receive 14% less call backs than ‘white sounding names’ (Source).
  • All BAME groups are more likely to be overqualified than white ethnic groups, but white employees are more likely to be promoted than all other groups (Source).
  • 60% of the black executives who oversee major lines of business at Fortune 500 companies felt they had to work twice as hard—and accomplish twice as much—to be seen on the same level as their colleagues (Source).

And the fact that makes gaining visibility into racial diversity in the workplace even more difficult? Only 3% of Fortune 500 companies share their full diversity data report. (Source)


Benefits of a Diverse Workforce: The Stats

What makes these statistics all the more disheartening, is that we know diverse workforces outperform non-diverse workforces every time. As the World Economic Forum state, ‘the business case for diversity in the workplace is now overwhelming’.

  • Businesses with diverse management teams make 19% more revenue (Source).
  • 43% of businesses with diverse boards saw increased profits (Source).
  • Diverse companies are 70% more likely to capture new markets (Source).
  • Diverse teams make better decisions 87% of the time compared to individuals (Source).
  • 85% of CEOs with diverse and inclusive workforces said they noticed increased profits (Source).
[Source: BCG Diversity and Innovation Survey]

Boosting Representation: Diversity and Inclusion

Of course, discussions of diversity are not new to business discourse.

The terms ‘diversity and inclusion’ are in fact discussed so frequently in business, there is a feeling they have suffered from becoming merely a set of buzzwords. Something for HR departments to simply address, rather than sparking an entire company overhaul of values and leadership.

As I’ve discussed before, diversity and inclusion are two different things, with different kinds of solutions. Yet they are frequently grouped together and tackled in the same way.

🌈️ Diversity is the goal for a workforce to be made up of a broad variety of people.

💛️ Inclusion is how we ensure everybody is equally factored into that group.

Both are equally important when addressing racial diversity in the workplace. In order to achieve a truly diverse workforce, you must also foster a culture of inclusion.

For businesses to make an impact on their racial diversity, change must come from leaders demanding fairer processes at every level of the business, as well as strongly investing in hiring and developing BAME leaders.

Here are a number of ways businesses can step up right now to enact real change:


Actively discuss race in the workplace

Many people, overwhelmingly white people, feel uncomfortable discussing these issues at work. It is a privilege to even be able to use discomfort as a reason to not address these issues – as it serves as an acknowledgement that it doesn’t directly affect you.

All businesses should be making it a top priority to open up and encourage discussions about race, representation, diversity and inclusion right now. Share resources and links, run programmes on allyship, create safe spaces for people to have these conversations, teach people how to identify and call out racism in the workplace, and don’t shy away from the topic.

These discussions could help to highlight the key cultural and structural barriers that are maintaining racial inequalities within the business. Meaning that amplifying employee voices can help contribute to real change.

💡 Idea: create an internal forum or group (such as a Slack channel) focused on the discussion of race within the organisation.

But remember – in order to foster an inclusive workforce, it’s important that everybody is encouraged to take part in these groups, not just those who are affected or already involved in the discussions.

Bernadine Evaristo, Black British author and Booker Prize Winner, puts this well:

“Nor should the industry ask us what to do any more, to sit on diversity panels with other people of colour talking to an audience of people of colour – none of whom can change the industry from the outside.” – Bernadine Evaristo

[Source: Southbank Centre]

Get leaders vocally on board

Senior leaders particularly, must be actively vocal. Leaders across all areas of the business should be speaking about racial diversity in the workplace, the inequalities affecting BAME individuals within the business, and the ways they are working to build a more inclusive workplace. This ought to be a responsibility of any business leader right now – as Sheree Atcheson puts it – ‘this is not a nice-to-have, it’s a necessity’.

It’s crucial that those in leadership roles are vocal allies on the matter of diversity and inclusion right now. Many studies demonstrate the powerful impact of leadership on company culture and opinion, proving that leaders can enact genuine change in thinking and behaviour within their organisations.

This is not a ‘top down’ or a ‘bottom up’ issue. This is something that has to be addressed throughout every echelon of a business. But with leaders having the most authority to make change, they need to be firmly on board.

Revisit the hiring process

Businesses should be checking in with their recruitment teams or processes right now to see how they can make them more inclusive. This means looking at diversity targets, applicant demographics, where those applicants are coming from, and how the interviews are handled.

If an organisation is not attracting black applicants, it not an excuse to continually only hire white and other non-black people. They need to be addressing why. This means revisiting everything from how job ads are worded, to where they’re being promoted, and the recruitment process from start to finish. Analysing data can also help to reveal any injustices, and businesses should invest in anti-bias training if they find they are falling short in this area.

Another key issue with recruitment which so often results in un-diverse hires, is the referral process. Many businesses place great weight on employee referrals, with a referred candidate often skipping the first stage of the interview process.

However, if most of your workforce is white and you’re relying on them to refer people in their network, chances are they will recommend people who are similar to them. Viyas Sundaram refers to this as ‘homogenisation’ within business. The same goes for prioritising hiring on ‘good culture fit’ – as most of the time the ‘fit’ is people who look and think the same way the interviewers do.

Invest in BAME employees’ career progression

When a third of black employees in the UK feel their careers have been hampered by discrimination, something needs to be addressed.

There are a number of barriers within company structures that disproportionately affect BAME employees climbing the ladder, more than their white counterparts.

Organisations should make additional support and training available to tackle this inequality. Particularly as a huge factor into aspiration to leadership is seeing people that look like you at the top.

CIPD report found that:

‘If businesses are already lacking in racially diverse leadership and diverse role models (which most are) it can be even more difficult for BAME employees to progress in their careers.’

While it’s more important than ever for businesses to have Diversity & Inclusion teams addressing these issues and investing in BAME employees, HR alone is not responsible. As we’ve mentioned with the importance of leadership, organisations need champions throughout the business who are dedicated to supporting and elevating people of colour.

Establish a culture of mentoring

Mentoring is a well proven method for increasing BAME representation in leadership, and creating a more inclusive workplace culture. Following on from the value of role models and additional support, the impact of mentoring on racial diversity in leadership is overwhelming.

Harvard Business Review discuss the effectiveness of mentoring, stating:

‘Mentoring programs make companies’ managerial echelons significantly more diverse: On average they boost the representation of black, Hispanic, and Asian-American women, and Hispanic and Asian-American men, from 9% to 24%’.

Source: Harvard Business Review.

Mentoring programmes to improve racial diversity may involve selecting an under-represented group and matching them with mentors who can support, advise, and inspire them within the business.

As well as this, establishing company-wide mentoring can help to foster an inclusive culture, where everyone is sharing different perspectives and learning from each other.

📖 Read more about diversity and inclusion mentoring programmes here.

Reverse mentoring has also seen success across organisations for creating more inclusive workplaces. Typically mentoring involves a senior or more experienced person advising a more junior colleague. However, when the majority of senior leaders in large organisations are white and male, you can end up with very one-dimensional mentoring taking place. 

Reverse mentoring addressing racial diversity would involve matching younger BAME employees with senior leaders, so they gain an understanding of their experience of the company and its culture first-hand from someone who is more negatively affected by it. Here is a great reverse mentoring case study for inspiration.

Address things from a lens of intersectionality

Finally, in all of these discussions, it’s important be aware of intersectionality. Intersectionality refers to the overlapping identities of individuals which can create unique and specific circumstances for discrimination. For example, a black trans man, or a white woman with a disability.

This is particularly critical when looking at data, to avoid drawing generalisations or conclusions that do not factor in intersectionality.

[Source: IWDA]

Here is a useful guide to intersectionality for more information.


Businesses and the individuals within them, have a duty to step up and take action in order to effect real change right now.

This isn’t something that’s solved in an HR department, and it’s certainly not something black people should have to fight for themselves.

If you have things to add to this list, or know of organisations who are truly making an impact right now, I’d love to speak to you – connect with me on LinkedIn.

This article was originally published on the Guider blog.

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